The NBA’s trading deadline is officially in the rearview mirror and most of the top players who hit the buyout market after the deadline have already landed with their new teams. That means the league’s collective attention is shifting from player movement to movement in the standings and how the key races will play out over the last 48 days of the regular season.
This is the first season that each of the top 10 teams at each conference qualifies for at least one warm-up round, allowing more teams to play on the track than ever before.
A brief refresher on how the play-in tournament works: The teams that rank seventh and eighth in the overall standings play against each other. The winner receives the 7-seed. The teams that finish ninth and tenth are also facing each other. The loser of this game is eliminated. The winner meets the loser of the 7-8 game, and the winner of that game is the 8-seed.
It all means that there are three key races for the play-in tournament:
• The race for the top six to guarantee a place in the playoffs
• The race for seventh or eighth place and the entry into the playoffs with a win
• Race for 10th place and give your team a chance
For the remainder of the season, there will be at least one game each night that affects the battles in the key ranking. Here is a breakdown of the main ones, starting with the tip of the east.
Stephen A. Smith explains why he’s not a fan of the Nets by adding LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin.
The top seed of the east
The Philadelphia 76ers, Brooklyn Nets, and Milwaukee Bucks have split from the rest of the Eastern Conference. The team that emerges from this group to set the best record in the Eastern regular season receives two key advantages.
First, they get a home advantage at least until the NBA finals. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the top seed among these three teams can avoid facing the other two until at least the conference finals.
While there are some intriguing teams in the standings including the Miami Heat and Boston Celtics, every team in the East Playoff picture currently hovering around the 500 except the trio at the top. For a team like the 76 that currently nets the nets in half Leading the game, it would be a huge advantage to play one of these medium-sized teams in the second round rather than having to play a previous playoff series against Milwaukee or Brooklyn.
All three teams at the top have recently taken steps to strengthen their squads for the stretch run. The bucks were against forward P.J. Tucker swapped the 76s for security guard George Hill, and the Nets added Bigs Blake Griffin and LaMarcus Aldridge after being bought out by their previous teams.
The nets will be visited by the 76ers on April 14th (7:00 p.m. ET on ESPN), while the bucks will face the Sixers twice in a row, on April 22nd (7:00 p.m. ET on TNT) and April 24th (3:30 p.m. ET on ESPN) . While the outcome of these games could play an important role in the final ranking of this trio, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index (BPI) gives the Sixers a chance to hold onto the top spot, also because Philadelphia has the fifth easiest remaining schedule. well ahead of Milwaukee (14th) and Brooklyn (19th).
Jalen Rose says the heat moves at close of trade are why he picks them to win the east.
The east game
When the NBA resumed play last season, the league added the crease of a warm-up for final playoff spot when teams in eighth and ninth place after seeding games were separated by four or fewer games overall were. This was not the case in the east, where the Washington Wizards in the bubble faded greatly. So it will be the first year fans watch an Eastern Conference game.
And getting to that point could be a complete mess.
As of now, the Knicks and Charlotte Hornets have finished fourth, just two games ahead of the Indiana Pacers in 9th place, just two games. The Chicago Bulls are in 10th place, two games behind Indiana and two games ahead of the Toronto Raptors. Any of these teams could finish in the top six along with the Celtics, Heat and Atlanta Hawks to avoid the warm-up round or drop to 11th place.
BPI expects the Celtics and Heat – the finalists of the Eastern Conference last year – to come in fourth and fifth, respectively. Boston added that Evan Fournier and Miami picked up Trevor Ariza, Victor Oladipo and Nemanja Bjelica before close of trading. The Hornets are expected to finish sixth and make it back to the playoffs for the first time in five years.
The Bulls, on the other hand, are expected to finish in eleventh place and miss the play-in completely, despite having struck two deadline day deals to add all-star Nikola Vucevic and great man Daniel Theis.
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The West plays along
It’s not quite as chaotic in the west, where stratification has developed between the six best teams and the other playoff hopefuls.
The ninth Memphis Grizzlies and the tenth Golden State Warriors aim to stop the aspiring Sacramento Kings and New Orleans Pelicans, with those four teams just two games apart. While both Sacramento and New Orleans swapped players on the cut-off date – Nemanja Bjelica and JJ Redick – they held onto other players in hopes of getting a playoff push.
The 7/8 game is also out of reach for any of these teams. The seventh Dallas Mavericks are just 1½ games ahead of Memphis. In fact, BPI believes the Warriors will most likely end up in the 7-8 game against the Mavs, while the Pelicans and San Antonio Spurs will most likely face each other in the 9-10 game.
Stephen A. Smith outlines why he sees the Lakers coming from the west after the addition of Andre Drummond.
Where will the Lakers land?
As recently as March 18, the Los Angeles Lakers were second in the west after reaching Utah Jazz in 1½ games. The idea that they could end up in the play-in tournament was ridiculous. But then LeBron James went down with a high ankle sprain and joined superstar Anthony Davis on the sidelines.
Suddenly the defending champions looked vulnerable and lost four games in a row before taking two home wins against two of the league’s worst teams, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Orlando Magic. Now the Lakers are as close to the Mavericks in seventh place as they are to top seed jazz, and the idea of an understaffed Lakers roster falling into a play-in spot isn’t that far-fetched.
James is expected to be out for a few weeks. Davis, who was out with a calf strain and tendinosis in his right leg, has only just resumed activities on the field. Neither star will be back to help anytime soon, which isn’t good for the team’s offensive. The Lakers are ranked 23rd in the league since Davis left the line-up in mid-February and 29th in the five games both James and Davis missed.
They got a boost over the weekend with Andre Drummond, who averaged 17.5 PPG this season in Cleveland before he was bought out.
The Lakers have the second hardest remaining schedule in the league, and the two teams directly behind in the standings – the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers – both took steps to improve by the close of trade. ESPN’s BPI currently expects the Lakers to hold fourth place in the west, but pulling this off with both stars won’t be easy.